In February, University of Winnipeg wrestling head coach Adrian Bruce walked out of a morning practice session and was met by a number of reporters.
They wanted his reaction to the news that wrestling had just been dropped as an Olympic sport. There was one problem: Bruce had not yet heard the news.
“I was in disbelief,” said Bruce. “It was like finding out there is no Santa Claus. It was a harsh reality.”
A week into September, the IOC reinstated wrestling as a sport for the 2020 and 2024 Games. However, the wrestling you see in future games will look much different from how the sport has been presented in the past. As a result of being dropped, wrestling made various changes that the IOC had been wanting for years. So far, Bruce says, the new rules have been well received.
“The changes that they were requesting made sense,” said Bruce. “The tournaments I have seen with the new rule set, it is way better wrestling. The old rules favoured good athletes but mediocre wrestlers. You want the best wrestler to win because that’s what our sport is about.”
Among the bigger rule changes made were the addition of two women’s weight classes to even up both genders at six. Changes to way matches are scored and the ability for referees to penalize passive wrestlers will also ensure that more often than not the best wrestler will walk out victorious.
Wrestling has been a part of every Olympic Games since the modern era resumed in 1896. Having the Olympics taken away from the sport would be similar to hockey players competing without the Stanley Cup or baseball without a World Series. The impact of having the sport as a part of the Olympics can be felt right down through amateur wrestling.
“You can take a five year old kid, bring him in and say to him what’s your dream as a wrestler? They’ll say I want to be an Olympic champion,” says Bruce. “Is that every kid’s reality? No, but it’s the dream that keeps them involved.”
Amateur wrestling in Manitoba mainly consists of high school-based club programs. The University of Winnipeg is the only school in the province to offer the sport at the CIS level. Bruce says it’s important for his program to cultivate athletes in-province but wrestling in Manitoba is in a rebuilding stage.
“Manitoba used to be a powerhouse internationally,” says Bruce. “We had world champions and Olympic medalists from here. There came a time when the sport kind of stumbled and lost its recognition. I was the president of Manitoba wrestling for a number of years and during that time, we were able to get our recognition back and along with that came funding.”
“Growth is a very positive thing if done at the appropriate manner and appropriate pace. The numbers are getting stronger and the quality of the athlete coming out of Manitoba is getting stronger.”
While wrestling’s spot in the Olympics is now assured until the 2024 Games, nothing has been guaranteed past that date. For wrestling to resume having the profile as an Olympic sport, it must continue to evolve and make changes that are necessary. Bruce said that the scare back in February came due to the sport being stagnant and lazy and that is certainly a trap the sport can’t fall into again.
If it doesn’t, over a decade from now, Bruce can walk out of his morning workout with a happier reaction to give the cameras waiting for him.